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Psycho - spiritual Symbolism in the Tibetan Book of the Dead

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by Sangharakshita

Aspects of Buddhist Psychology

Lecture 44: Psycho-spiritual symbolism in the Tibetan Book of the Dead Mr Chairman and Friends: Last week we reached a turning point in our course on Aspects of Buddhist Psychology. Up to last week, we had been addressing, we may say, the conscious mind. Whether in the lecture on the Analytical Psychology of the Abhidharma or the Depth Psychology of the Yogacara, we were addressing the conscious mind and using therefore what we may describe as the language of concepts, the language of abstract ideas, abstract thought.

It was only last week that we started addressing, started trying to speak to, started to penetrate to, if possible, the unconscious mind. And therefore we started using the language of images, the language of myth, of legend, of poetry and so on. And we started also exploring, last week, what we may describe as the archetypal world.

And we studied some of the archetypal symbols which occur in the biography, the so-called "legendary" life, of the Buddha.

Now today we are continuing that exploration, but we are continuing it within a rather different context. Last week we studied the archetypes, the archetypal symbols in the context of the so-called legendary life of the Buddha. Today we are studying them within a quite different context: we are studying them within the context of death.

This evening our subject is the psycho-spiritual symbols of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Now death, we may say, is not a very popular subject. I was going to say that people don't exactly come flocking to a lecture on death - but it seems that that is just what they do! I must admit that I have sometimes been rather surprised. I remember a couple of years ago when I gave a series of fortnightly lectures at Kensington over a whole year, on various aspects of Buddhism, the biggest attendance was when we had a lecture on "Buddhism and the problem of Death". Then they really did turn up, I won't say in their hundreds, but certainly the room was packed. I think so far as Kensington was concerned on that particular occasion, it was probably because we had in the neighbourhood rather a large number of spiritualists. It might also have been because quite a number of people do find death a bit of a problem - but it is, after all, a problem which we all have to face sooner or later.

We have sometimes lectures on meditation - well, sometimes people are not all that interested in meditation - you don't have to meditate. They may not be all that interested in Buddhist philosophy - you don't have to study that - and even in Buddhist psychology, even in aspects of Buddhist psychology, they may not be particularly interested in that subject, either - but you can hardly help being interested in death. A human being can hardly help being interested in death - at least, so much one would have thought. But we do find, unfortunately, that here in the West, very often people are rather reluctant to face up to the fact of death. And in some circles it seems to be considered even rather indecent to refer too openly or too bluntly to this fact of death. It is perhaps significant that in this country, in the English language, we have quite a large number of euphemisms for death.

For instance, instead of saying that someone has just died, bluntly and crudely like that, we tend to say "Well, he's passed away", or even, "passed on", or again even, "passed over". Or we sometimes say, "He is no more." We put it as indirectly as that. And some people, I have even heard say, "He has gone to his heavenly home." Others merely say, "Gone away" or "been called away" but we have all these various euphemisms for this plain and simple fact of death - it's as though people don't like to pronounce this word - don't like to say that so and so is just - dead.

And this reluctance to face up to, to recognise the fact of death, we may say is due basically, simply, to fear.

We just don't want, really, to die. So very often we pretend, or we try to pretend, that we won't die. We just ignore that fact, we just shut it out of our minds, we force it into the background of our consciousness, where it lurks all the time, ever ready to spring out, as it were, but always kept in the background, in the shadows, not recognised, much less still accepted.

But in the East, I would say, broadly speaking, as compared with the West, we do not find this state of affairs.

In the East, I would say, having lived there for some twenty years, I would say that death was accepted much more easily, much more readily, than in this country, in the West generally. One might even go so far as to say that sometimes or even very often, in the East, people look forward to death - quite ordinary people - not saints, and sages and yogis and mahatmas, but quite ordinary people - look forward to death. They even look forward to old age. In Buddhist countries, people look forward to old age very often with positive enjoyment because they think their children and their grandchildren will be grown up, they won't have very much to do, no household affairs to look after, they just grow old gracefully, accumulate merit and look forward to dying.

In Chinese Buddhist circles, for instance, they order their coffins well in advance, have beautifully carved and _________________________________________________________________________________________________ lacquered ones, and keep it in state, as it were, in the sitting room. And when a friend comes to tea or just to see them, they take them into the sitting room and say, "Look, my coffin. Magnificent teak - isn't it lovely? This is what I'm going to be buried in." And they're quite happy and quite pleased about it all. So this tends to be the Eastern attitude.

I recollect in this connection there's a poem by the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in the course of which he says, "I know I shall love death, because I have loved life." And this is indeed the Eastern attitude; this is a typical expression of the Eastern attitude: to love death because you have loved life. You see, you recognise, you accept that life and death are two aspects of the same thing: two sides of the same coin. So that if one loves one, one can hardly help, one can hardly avoid loving the other also.

Now in Buddhism, which historically is an Eastern religion, an Eastern spiritual tradition, very great attention indeed is paid to this question of death. And Buddhists of whatsoever school are exhorted all the time to be mindful of the inevitability of death - to remember all the time in the midst of life, in the midst of youth, in the midst of health, in the midst of pleasure - to be mindful, to recollect, that one day, one will be no more. One day, one will come face to face with this fact, with what appears to us almost a terrible reality, of death.

Those of you who have attended the meditation classes, those of you who have heard perhaps, some of the talks I have given on meditation, will remember that recollection of death - being constantly mindful of one's inevitable end, at least of the physical body - is one form of one of the five basic methods of meditation, designed to cure us of the disease, the sickness, of craving.

In Buddhism generally, in Buddhist teaching, Buddhist tradition, there are many teachings on this subject of death. If you look through Buddhist literature, you will find that there is quite a big literature simply on this subject of death. One might even say, a vast literature, in various languages, canonical and non-canonical. But we may say also that there is one source, one literary source on the subject of death in Buddhism which stands out above all others, which as it were synthesises the whole of the Buddhist teaching on the subject of death.

Not only synthesises, but adds, we may say, unique esoteric elements of the highest value. And this source, this text, is the one with which we are concerned today, that is to say, the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Now this is not its real title - it's a very good title, a very expressive one; this is exactly what it is, in a way, the Tibetan Book of the Dead - but its real title in Tibetan is Bardo Thodol. What that means, we shall see a little later on. Meanwhile, we shall continue to refer to this work as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Now what is the origin of this work? What is its source? Where did it come from? If not in its present literary form, at least insofar as its contents and teachings are concerned, the Tibetan Book of the Dead goes back to one of the greatest figures in the whole history of Buddhism, also we may say, one of the most interesting, fascinating and colourful figures in the whole history of Buddhism, and that is the great guru Padmasambhava.

I don't know how many of you have heard of him, but perhaps it is a measure of one's knowledge and understanding of Buddhism - the history of Buddhism, at least - whether one has heard of and appreciates the life of this great figure, Padmasambhava, the Lotus-born Guru.

Padmasambhava was a great Indian teacher of the Eighth Century of the Common Era. He was a very great scholar, a great sage, a great philosopher, mystic, yogi, and above all, according to tradition, a perfect master of all the occult sciences and all the esoteric traditions. Many students of Buddhism believe that he was the greatest master in this field next to the Buddha himself, who has ever lived. It was this great teacher, Padmasambhava, who above all others was responsible for the initial establishment of Buddhism in Tibet. And he is regarded, or afterwards became, the founder of the Nyingmapa School of Tibetan Buddhism. This is the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism ...

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